Adaptive Leadership Teams – Fostering Agility and Innovation

November 23, 2020

Few leaders would dispute that if businesses are to withstand disruption it is imperative to harness innovation and agility. The events of 2020 have certainly demonstrated this, with the organisations that adapted at a speed previously unthought of surviving or thriving at the expense of those who paused.

The disruption prompted different approaches to both leading and running a business. Merryck Mentor, Peter Hutchinson, found that many leaders were pleasantly surprised at how well their teams responded and adapted – “The crisis pulled people together.  It led to a lot of multi-level team working and a significant move to non-hierarchical activity. People have now seen that this can deliver remarkable results fast.”

Unleashing Innovation

Merryck have found that innovation can be most effective when it is released from deep within the organisation. Mentor, Rudi Kindts, says “Fostering agility and innovation in a business does not come from a top down, demand and control approach. It requires a different leadership style that’s more inclusive, and from a team that’s agile in itself. This is often a new way of working for leadership teams.”

This statement echoes what Merryck’s, Margaret Heffernan, said in the article Leading In An Age Of Ambiguity earlier this year – “Since hierarchy and bureaucracy actively suppress innovation and creativity, companies that have worked at reducing these will find themselves with more capacity to adapt and evolve.”

Inclusivity to foster stronger agility

In creating greater inclusivity to support innovation and agility, leadership teams are also questioning the different skillsets they need and reassessing their team makeup against their future focus and plans. We discussed this in more detail in our last article.

There has rightly been greater focus on diversity – inspired by movements such as Black Lives Matter which has led many leaders to commit to initiatives which will bring greater representation across the business. Such commitment brings tremendous value to an organisation, particularly given that the team and business culture can pull from a wider net of ideas and experiences. This greatly strengthens innovation.

The third lens

As the world gets more complex and uncertain than it has ever been. Leadership teams’ plans can no longer remain linear and often need to adapt in the moment to disruptive changes. We have been speaking to more and more businesses who are looking at agile ways of working.  Fostering agility and innovation in an organisation is one of the 3 lenses Merryck have identified that leadership teams use to accelerate their impact.

This particular lens helps teams leverage their enablers and reduce the impact of obstacles when delivering their strategic plan. It helps them lead the speedy execution of innovative ideas, encourage experimentation and realise the creation of new sources of value (not necessarily financial) within the business.  We have found there are typically 3 components to this lens, and we explore them below.

Innovating to remove obstacles and leverage enablers

This first component helps leadership teams to understand the levers to pull, and what obstacles to address, to achieve the outcomes of their plan.  Effective leadership teams carefully manage the risks associated with any obstacles to minimise their impact, which in some cases means adapting their plans. This could include removing people from the team to make it more cohesive and reflective of the culture and capabilities needed in the future. We discussed this further in our previous article.

Innovation often comes from outside the team and teams need to leverage enablers such as stakeholders and others who can bring value. Successful teams work closely with their stakeholders both inside and outside of the organisation to better recognise ideas or new sources of value that will benefit the organisation now and in the future.

Other questions to help your team’s thinking:

Is our team an enabler to agility or a hindrance?

Do we understand the internal and external obstacles we may have to address?

Do we take a collaborative approach to working with stakeholders?

How inwardly vs outwardly are we focused?

This approach is helped by embracing different skills and capabilities alongside ideas from a wider pool.  It also comes from the team having an appetite to learn from and with each other.  Rudi Kindts suggests that, “if they are to become more agile and in turn leverage opportunities, teams need to question if they’re a learning team that invests in their own development.  If they are a group of people who think they know, there will be limited scope for innovation.”

As Merryck’s Pam Fields states, “People want their company to succeed. They would like to be able to filter their ideas upward, and that’s a lesson for when the crisis is over — to make sure that you have in place a good mechanism for people to share their ideas. They know the details, and sometimes the details can inform strategy in a way that top-down can’t.”

Demonstrating adaptability, resilience and renewal

A second key component to foster innovation and agility is how well a leadership team demonstrates adaptability, resilience and renewal and this is timely given the complexity and uncertainty of the last year. Leadership teams who are impactful and effective are highly adaptable and can ‘fail fast’ and then bounce back quickly. They tolerate high levels of ambiguity and sustain a positive mindset in the face of adversity and disruption. This often means paying close attention to the energy levels within the team so they remain high and resilient as a collective.

Questions to help your team’s thinking:

How well does our team recover from setbacks?

Do we invest time on checking in with each other on a personal level?

How well do we handle disruption and change?

Do we take or create energy?

Merryck Mentor, Andrew Dyckhoff, says that in the remote working climate “it’s important to evolve new ways of replacing energy within teams.” Rudi Kindts adds that “many teams have yet to learn how to be ‘informal’ when working within the restrictions of the digital environment.”  This informality and energy was standard in the traditional working environment, but it’s been hard to replicate this when people are so dispersed and facing ‘screen-fatigue’.

Understanding people beyond the day job and role helps strengthen resilience and renewal in teams. Sharon Daniels, CEO of Arria NLG recently described the importance for her team to demonstrate strength and so… “I’ve been making sure I get enough rest. I talk to my chief operating officer… every morning to make sure we are aligned and that we are both okay, because how we show up to the broader team matters. It’s easy in business to sometimes think, ‘I just need to be focused on the work’. But you’ve got to stop and focus on the people.”

As well as increasing their own adaptability, effective leadership teams need to coach it across the business. Teams recognise that capability is crucial to helping others across the organisation adapt to change, while still focusing on delivering the results.

Fostering a collaborative culture and values

In fostering innovation and agility, it’s important to know when to encourage collaboration and how to initiate it to be effective. The more impactful leadership teams demonstrate collaboration and co-creation within their own makeup and then model it when interacting with other teams and individuals. Telling and exhibiting the story from the top down demonstrates commitment to a clear and communicated set of values that influences a positive culture throughout the organisation.

Rudi Kindts recalls from his own career a leader’s investment in the development of his senior team and how the scheduled away-days were such a valuable experience.  “This was largely because time was deliberately set aside for rumination and contemplation. Not only did the team find this liberating, it also fostered greater collaboration and a shared set of values among them.”

Questions to help your team’s thinking:

What are the common values and drivers and does the team demonstrate them?

Do we understand the underlying assumptions and unwritten rules that drive our business culture?

Do we encourage and support collaboration both within and across teams?

Do we inspire ourselves and others?

Summary

There is increased pressure on businesses and teams to harness innovation and to achieve it leaders need to switch the focus from business as usual to a broader bigger picture and look towards the future. By enabling greater inclusivity of thought and ideas – a share of voice and utilising people’s skills and strengths this can be achieved. By switching the focus from control to empowerment, innovation at its best can come from deeper within the organisation.

Broader collaboration helps leadership teams to be open to the enablers that will leverage opportunities and identify the obstacles to be tackled. In a particularly prolonged period of uncertainty, leadership teams need to take stock to strengthen their own resilience and take care of each other. A greater appetite for care and collaboration always stands organisations in good stead.

In our final article of this series, we’ll explore this further as we sum up how adaptative leadership teams can accelerate greater impact in their organisations. We’ll also discuss key areas of focus for teams in 2021 and beyond.

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About Merryck & Co.

Merryck & Co. has been helping organisations for 20 years accelerate the impact of leadership.

Merryck & Co. is a global firm of experienced CEOs and top business leaders who bring an operator’s lens to executive development. Their services focus on succession, senior leadership development, strategic enterprise transformation, and emerging leadership development. The firm’s clients include some of the most successful executives within the highest-performing companies in the world, boards of directors, and select teams of individuals.

To arrange a conversation, please email leadership@merryck.com or call +44 203 786 9005

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